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Iraqi Christian continues to serve and educate people in Kurdistan

As a Christian in Iraq, Yousif Matty welcomes the presence of “internationals,” including Americans, both those who support ministries he oversees and troops who are rebuilding infrastructure in Kurdistan.

He came to Spokane in January to take a New Testament survey class at Whitworth College, to speak on behalf of Partners International and to thank several groups: Americans for their support of boys and girls in three Christian primary schools, women coming to Ruth Center, listeners to three Christian radio stations and shoppers in several bookstores he started.  He also sought to recruit teachers and others to help.

Matty Yousef
Yousif Matty visits Spokane.

“I want more than peace in my country,” he said, concerned about the potential for chaos. He wants “reconciliation, spiritual reconciliation.”

As an Evangelical Christian working among the Kurds, he wants freedom of religion, not to force religion on others, but to express and live in freedom.

Life is dangerous for him as an Iraqi Christian.  Many Christians have left.  He could seek asylum, because of threats against his safety, threats to kidnap his children, stoning of his house and shots fired at his car.  So he travels in different cars and stays different places at night.

“I believe God wants me alive in Iraq,” Yousif said.  “I do not want to leave.  My faith sustains me and is the backbone of my activities.

“It would be easier to leave, but I advise people to stay.  We as Christians can help stabilize the country with our message of reconciliation,” he affirms.  “Even as a minority of minorities, we can help.  Jesus Christ gives peace different from the world’s peace.”

In this visit to the United States, one of many since 1998, he went to North and South Carolina, California, Texas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, connecting with groups related to Campus Crusade, Open Doors and Servant Group International, as well as Partners International, which has its headquarters at 1117 E. Westview Ct., Spokane.

He believes American churches will need to support Iraqi churches for the next 10 years.

Born in Baghdad, Yousif grew up in Ninevah, graduating in geology from Ninevah College in 1979.  Out of college, he was conscripted and served 10 years in the Iraqi army, eight in the Iran-Iraq War in southern Iraq and three months in the first Gulf War.

After completing his service, he worked a year with an oil company, but was drawn more and more into his commitment to Christian service in the no-fly zone.

In 1986, he read a New Testament his brother-in-law gave him.  In 1989, he prayed to accept Christ into his life or, as he said, “Christ started his life within me.”

Working with the oil company in Kirkuk, he saw Kurds being hurt by the government.  He started to help them secretly, sneaking one to three times a month into the no-fly zone to take New Testaments and resources.

“Then one morning, I saw Saddam’s army helicopters shell a Kurdish zone.  In the afternoon, women and children fled into our zone to hide,” said Yousif, who is of Chaldean descent—traditional enemies of the Kurds.  “Seeing the massacre touched my heart.  I committed to pursue peace.

“Seeing what was happening to people broke through propaganda messages in media and schools, messages claiming Kurds were bad people.  We were told that so we would fear contacting them.”

He and his family crossed cultural barriers to work for humanitarian concerns.  When he met people, he saw they were poor people, not monsters. He decided to help them.  Kurds were suspicious of him until they realized he helped their families and children.

“I seek reconciliation regardless of ethnicity.  I share faith and Christ through humanitarian assistance for Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians,” he said.

“At first, only my wife, Alia, knew I was going north.  After nine months, a friend said Saddam’s security forces reported I was helping Kurds,” Yousif said. 

Within three days, in August 1992,  he, his wife and three children fled north with two suitcases.  His connection with Partners International began through an evangelical couple there.

“There are also Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Orthodox in Kurdistan, but those are national or ethnic churches, so they have no plans for evangelizing.

“Settling with Kurds, I just wanted to tell the story of Christ and help with humanitarian needs.  I had small ideas, but when I connected with international people, ideas grew,” Yousif said.

When a German pastor brought a truckload of medicines to help 500 families, Yousif contacted a local hospital and hired a doctor and pharmacist to distribute the medicines, which he kept at his home so they wouldn’t be sold “on the market.”

“I’m not a pastor, just someone interested in sharing the Good News, helping provide medicine, clothing and food,” he said.

He visited a school and saw children with no shoes, so he asked international Christian organizations for shoes.  He also asked for wheat, which he ground into flour so families could have at least one meal of bread and water a day.

Soon he was the hands and feet providing aid from Partners International (PI) donors.

He started training programs for women to make cloth or become teachers and for men to learn carpentry or welding.  He arranged for them to buy tools and start micro-enterprises.

In one year, Yousif and Alia taught more than 300 people English.  Most found jobs.

As programs, grew he rented a house for Abundant Life Center.  People come to have needs met and join in spiritual activities.

Now the ministry reaches four cities: Dahok, Erbil, Sulmania and Kirkuk.  Churches were established in these cities and three radio stations, supported by PI.

With the support of international friends, they transformed their home schools into three primary schools for 550 children, first  through eighth grade.  The goal is to add a grade each year.

“The government is happy to see schools and sends their children, even knowing they are using biblically based U.S. curricula,” Yousif said.  “The Classical School of the Medes, a Christian primary school, is highly regarded by Muslims.  About 95 percent of the 550 students are Muslims.”

Yousif, who founded Evangelism Kurdistan, works with leaders of four churches with 30 to 200 members.  Elders are the pastors; he educates them.

Changes since the war are:

• People can find jobs.

• Salaries are higher, $400 a month for a doctor instead of $25, or $200 a month for a government employee instead of $3.

• People can buy washing machines, air conditioners, refrigerators and other things that need more electricity.  They have electricity just 10 hours a day.

• There is a new democratic system, and even though parties may not understand democracy, it is a beginning.

“In the short term, life is not better than under Saddam Hussein, but I believe the long-term is positive,” he said.  “For 30 years, we had no human rights, freedom of the press or free speech.”

“The Bible is not blacklisted,” he said. “The constitution must support my right to believe what I believe. 

“I agree with the right of others to believe or not to believe, but we should have freedom to talk and share about our faith,” he said.

Above the no-fly zone from 1991 to 2002, Kurds managed better than Sunnis and Shiites.

Along with providing security, the U.S. Army is helping civilians rebuild.  The mayor and Americans seek to develop water and electrical systems.  A U.S. general raised funds and troops are building infrastructure, Yousif said.  Units also provide clothing, shoes and school supplies for villagers.

 “It would not be good for us if Americans left, especially not Kurdistan. There have been no incidents against Americans here in Kurdistan.  They help teach in our schools and churches,” he said.

Yousif is setting up a radio station in Baghdad to spread the message of reconciliation.

“Every nation and religion needs reconciliation.  The focus is going to be about reconciliation,” he said.  “We are going to share stories of God’s reconciling love through Christ.”

Yousif believes U.S. media share too little news about Iraq, so there is support for troops to leave.  He does not consider that politically, economically or militarily feasible.

“People fear civil war.  Many trust the situation with the American presence,” he said. 

“I encourage any peace process, but even more I encourage spiritual reconciliation of different parties working to negotiate, not for their personal benefits but for humans.  By recognizing the needs of different ethnic groups, we can heal,” Yousif said.

“Sunnis lost everything and are full of hatred.  Our response to them should not be the same.  Political leaders should not answer violent incidents with violence, but should establish control and rebuild for everyone,” he said.

Partners International works with local people like Yousif who know the language, people, culture and economy. 

For information call 343-4000.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © March 2006